Theodor L. Steiger's Years in Lincoln

August, 2014

Lincoln -- In the previous post I mentioned the name Theodor L. Steiger, whose communication with Henry Chandler Cowles, the noted botanist and ecologist of the University of Chicago, is in the Chicago archives of the Cowles collection. Steiger spent several productive years in Lincoln, for which he should be better remembered. While he was conducting research on prairies with his mentor, Professor John Ernst Weaver of the University of Nebraska, he was also pastor of a church in Lincoln's South Bottoms, home to a German speaking population of Volgadeutsch immigrants. Steiger's son later made a major contribution to astrophysics.

Steiger did extensive research in 1927 and 1928 on Lincoln's nearby Nine Mile Prairie and its environs, which at that time encompassed about 800 acres. He had emigrated from Switzerland to San Diego, California, in 1910, at age seventeen. He and his wife Bertha, also Swiss, had two children: Mari, born in South Dakota in 1921 when Theodor taught at Redfield College; and Walter, born in 1923 in Colorado. The family came to Lincoln where Steiger was invited to become minister at Ebenezer Congregational Church at 8th and B Streets. He simultaneously sought his doctorate in botany at the University of Nebraska, which he received in 1929.

In 1930, doctorate in hand, Steiger became a public advocate for keeping Lincoln's newly established Pioneers Park as native prairie:

It took nature thousands of years to produce this grassland. It is a living witness to the countless ages which elapsed before the white man began to sink the glistening plough into the ancient sod. Not enough of it is left today to convey to future generations an appreciation of the prairie. Are we going to permit its complete extinction in favor of the dull and unimaginative blue grass sod?

Steiger left Lincoln in 1931 with a fellowship from the National Research Council to study Swiss meadow vegetation at the University of Z├╝rich. He returned to the United States to teach at Sul Ross College at Alpine, Texas, in the Big Bend region, then joined the botany faculty at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After World War II, he spent two years in Greece working on agriculture projects with the United Nations Relief and Restoration Administration, UNRRA. He returned to the United States in 1947, researched New Hampshire grasslands, and discovered a new orchid, to be named Spiranthes Steigeri Correll. In his retirement, he returned to the ministry with the Unitarian Church. His son Walter, who attended his father's South Bottoms church as a child in Lincoln, studied physics at MIT and at the University of Cincinnati and joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii, where he became known as the grandfather of Hawaiian astronomy for bringing space observatories to Hawaii's tallest mountains.